As you get older and assume more responsibility in your life, your gaming time might need to adjust. It doesn't have to be game over, but if gaming is getting in the way of real life, it's time to push pause. Here's what worked well for me.
Illustration by Sam Woolley.
Start Tracking Your Gaming Time
Part of the reason video games eat up so much time is because they're so engaging. It's easy to get lost in their finely-crafted worlds, or get hooked by their clever progression systems that leave you saying "Just one more thing..." I can't count how many times I've sat down to play Breath of the Wild for "a couple minutes" then looked up to see hours have gone by, or popped into Overwatch to play "a few matches" then realise it's suddenly past my bedtime.
Tracking your gaming time can help, says psychologist John M. Grohol. Create a gaming log, be it a spreadsheet or just a piece of paper, and write down when you start playing a game and when you stop. Then add up your total gaming time at the end of each week. When I saw how much time I was actually spending in virtual worlds, it was enough to snap me out of my escapism bubble.
Set Limits for Yourself
When you sit down to play a game, I've found setting a timer helps a lot. Set a daily limit for yourself and try to keep to it. Even if you don't stop as soon as the timer goes off, you still become aware of how much time you've spent playing that day, and awareness is key. It can help to create a ruleset for your gaming too, such as, "I'll only play games with friends," or, "I can only play games on certain days of the week." That said, don't restrict yourself too much or you won't keep to your goals. It's OK to splurge every once in a while and plan an occasional "free gaming day".
Limiting your gaming budget can help a lot too. I set a spending cap on video games, and set a limit to how many games I can buy per month (especially during Steam sales, such as the one on right now). If you have an enormous backlog of games to play, you'll feel an urge to play more so you can finally get to them all. Don't bite off more than you can chew.
In a world of regular Steam sales and cheap used games, it's easy to build up a massive stockpile of games it feels like you'll never have time to get to. Well there actually is time, but you have to approach your backlog the right way. Here's how to do it.
Start Choosing Games Wisely
There's no way around it: Some games require a much bigger time investment than other games. MMOs, giant open-world exploration games and RPGs are major time sinks. I spent way too much time doing basically nothing in GTA 5, have barely scratched the surface of Persona 5 at nearly 40 hours in, and would probably cry if I looked at my total time played during the golden age of World of Warcraft.
If you're having a hard time stepping away from these kinds of games because there's so much to do in them, cut them out of your gaming diet. Shift your focus to games that are more pick-up-and-play so you can play in short bursts and not feel like you're missing out on anything when you set down the controller. I still indulge in these kinds of games on occasion, but I don't play as many as I used to, and I still track my time when I can.
Let Go of Your 'Hardcore Gamer' Cred
Once upon a time I had unlimited hours to spend on every major title release. I would try to beat games on the hardest difficulty, unlock all the achievements, and reach the highest rank in competitive multiplayer. Well, now I have a grown up job (kinda), and my boss doesn't care about any of that -- neither does my girlfriend. So a while back I ditched my gaming ego.
Now I'll play games on easy difficulty and charge through quickly if I'm mostly interested in the story. I stopped trying to complete games 100 per cent -- nobody cares, not even other gamers. And I skip a game's multiplayer if it isn't something I know I'll honestly enjoy, even if all of my friends are playing it. And if I do dive into the competitive modes, I don't worry about being the best player out there. I just have fun and move on. Lastly, I drop games the minute they start to lose my interest. I no longer waste my time on a game just because I'm worried other people will judge me for giving up.
You've got that boss down to just a sliver of health. One more hit and it's done. Then, out of nowhere, his axe comes sweeping in and chops down your last bit of life... again. Your controller flies across the room as expletives roar out of your mouth. Sound familiar? Game-induced rage sucks. Here's how to keep it under control.
Earn Gaming Time
Too much gaming is usually a problem because it gets in the way of other things you need to do, such as house chores, errands, work and exercise. So, I incorporated all that stuff into my gaming routine. I play Overwatch in between sets of lifting weights, switch between doing chores and playing Breath of the Wild like some sort of weird Pomodoro method, and I don't do any of that until I've already completed my work, run my errands, and at least taken a look at my many side projects. Remember, the goal isn't to remove video games from your life entirely. It's to make them a single aspect of your life, not the sole focus of it.
Start Watching Other People Play Games Instead
I'll be honest, I think it's ridiculous that people make a living playing video games on Twitch and YouTube… but I sure am glad they do. I don't have time to play every cool game I want to, so I watch streamers play them instead. I can live vicariously through them and still get a lot of joy out of the game I would otherwise. Plus, watching people play games is a more passive activity. I can do other things while I watch, such as do work, exercise, or sneak in a meal.
Many of us at Lifehacker are big fans of video games. Our esteemed Editor-in-Chief, however, is sceptical that gaming offers any value beyond simple entertainment. More often than not, he argues, games are a dangerous time sink. In this post, I hope to convince him -- and any of you who may feel the same way about video games -- otherwise, arguing that aside from being a great form of entertainment, video games can also relieve anxiety, teach new skills and help you stay motivated. And I've got science to back me up.
Go on a Gaming Detox
Going cold turkey isn't ideal for everyone, but it has worked for me in the past. When I really need to snap back to reality, I'll take all my video games (the current ones anyway), put them in a box, seal it up, then hand it off to someone who's willing to store it for me. I usually do this for a couple of weeks at a time, and I'm always surprised at how little I miss them. I get more stuff done, end up spending more time with the people I care about, and find other, less-time-consuming ways to blow off steam. Take some time to focus on the other things in your life and you'll gradually learn that you don't need video games as badly as you think.
Figure Out What You're Escaping
Video games are a fun way to de-stress, but they are one of the most advanced forms of escapism out there. To quell my gaming thirst I started looking at my escapism habits from another angle. I asked myself, "What am I hiding from?" and worked from there.
Sometimes it was stuff I couldn't control, like the general state of the world. Video games can offer a nice respite from the harsh truths of reality. But more often than not, I would be able to identify the things that were stressing me out and making me want to escape to virtual worlds in the first place. If work was getting me down, I'd make an actionable plan on how to improve it instead of grabbing a controller. If the weight of my personal life was crushing my shoulders, I'd talk to somebody about it and try to look at it from other angles instead of hiding behind a screen. We often run to video games because they make us feel powerful and in control. The real world doesn't always offer that, but it never will if you always run from the issues in your life.
Life can be full of hardships, so it's nice to take a step back from reality and get lost in the fantasies of our own minds. That's why we read books about faraway lands and explore virtual worlds with powerful avatars. Too much of it, however, can be detrimental to your productivity and personal growth.